While I failed to land on Governor’s Island when I started researching this national monument for a previous New York City visit in 2014 I was able to make the short ferry ride from the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan during a recent visit so wanted to share it’s unique physical and historical place in New York Harbour.
I started my day with a 9 AM visit to One World Trade Observatory which offers a great view of Governor’s Island which was officially named by the British in 1784 as the colonial assembly reserved it exclusively for the use of New York’s royal governors.
The short walk through the Trinity Church cemetery and past Wall Street leads to the historic Battery Maritime Building with its ornate arches and decoration.
The Battery Maritime Building, completed in 1909 when ferries were still a vital means of transportation in New York City, is the last surviving East River ferry building from an era when 17 ferry lines plied the waters between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The short ferry ride ends at Soissons Landing at the southern end of this 172-acre island which lies only 800 yards off Lower Manhattan and even closer to Brooklyn. Ferry service runs seasonally while the island is open to visitors which in 2017 is May 1st – 21st October. Roundtrip rides are $2 per adult except Saturdays and Sunday before 11:30 when there’s no charge.
The scorching hot day offered ideal conditions to photograph the Manhattan skyline and watch the Staten Island Ferry and harbour traffic glide past.
The view from the island of Lower Manhattan is massively memorable and unlike any I’d encountered on previous visits to New York.
A sail boat with sails unfurled made its way past but under power as there was barely a breath of a breeze to fill its canvas.
The Statue of Liberty is just off to the west as is neighboring Ellis Island that welcomed millions of immigrants from the mid 1800’s through the 1920’s helping shape not only New York City but the Unites States.
Having only 2 hours I opted to explore on foot the more developed and historic northeast end of the island but on a return trip with cooler weather would stay longer and rent a bike. There is 7 miles of car-free biking on Governors Island and bikes may be rented near the ferry landing while select bicycle rentals are free from Blazing Saddles weekdays morning 10 AM to Noon for up to 1 hour.
I did enjoy the leafy shade of Colonels Row with its stately officers houses.
Nearby is Castle Williams which was originally a fort built in 1807 along with the nearby Fort Jay to protect New York harbour before becoming a military prison in the in the U.S. Civil War, a role it retained for a century until 1965. Visitors are able to walk the interior and peer from the small casement windows at the city and reflect on how prisoners must’ve felt watching the world go on around them. Castle Williams and a surrounding 150-acre area are the Governors Island National Monument and so a National Park Service officer was on hand to answer questions and said most of the prisoners held at Castle Williams were short-timers serving on average less than a year.
Castle Williams which was designed by Jonathan Williams, first superintendent of West Point and commander of Corps of Engineers and who Williamsburg, Brooklyn is named for.
The scale of the forts, castles on Governors Island and the views of the city skyline from its shores are all large but off to one side I noticed a small memorial to a fallen sergeant on the grass and it helped humanize the island’s U.S. Army post which was in service from 1783 to 1966.
After Governors Island ceased being an Army post it was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1966 who used it for maritime search and rescue until 1996. Since its transfer in 2003 by the U.S. government to the people of New York state the lower 22-acres with its historic forts and buildings are administered by the National Park Service while the remaining mostly undeveloped 150-acres are administered by administered by a joint city-state agency, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC).
Visiting Governors Island is well worth a detour for those visitors in New York during Summer as until 2003 it was off-limits to all but service personnel and remained an enigma to millions of New Yorkers who lived their lives beside it without having ever set foot on it. So close yet so far.
There is an excellent scrolling timeline of Governors Island history here and an PDF map below.